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Queening the Pawn: Enhancing the Support Infrastructure of America's Quiet Professionals

Two bureaucratic constraints hinder the operational capacity of Special Operations Forces - inadequate funding levels and a convoluted legal authorisation structure. Adjustment of these would represent a significant first step in giving America's finest warriors the backing they deserve, so that they may focus on their chosen profession: hunting the most dangerous enemies who threaten America’s prosperity and stability.

Cover Image for Queening the Pawn: Enhancing the Support Infrastructure of America's Quiet Professionals
Photo Credits: War on the Rocks
Article byRule Johnstone
July 12, 2022

In US infantry basic training, budding soldiers are imbued with the spirit of their moniker, the “Queen of Battle,” which refers to the essential and timeless nature of the infantry in warfare. Yet there is a further chess analogy. When a pawn metamorphosizes into a queen upon a treacherous crossing of the board, it represents the progression of core skills, maturity, and tactical awareness, which separates the infantryman from a special operator: same skillset as the infantryman, only honed and developed through years of experience and trials by fire, literally. The difference is one of degree, not of kind. Special operators are not supermen. The most accomplished Green Berets will tell you that what makes them elite is their proficiency in the basics: shoot, move and communicate. Yet these warriors plying their hard-earned trade have lacked proper support for decades, even preceding the “Global War on Terror.”

They have also been misused: “the warrior virtues of SOF [Special Operations Forces] entice leaders to employ elite forces during desperate circumstances that can lead to catastrophic results. Elite units have often been assigned missions suitable to their warrior virtues, though not to their numbers, their firepower, or their ability to sustain high casualties.[1]” Here the chess metaphor is illustrated twofold; leaders’ erroneous use of SOF as if they were conventional soldiers, and the time and resources required to develop “queens” of the battlefield, far beyond that of regular troops. While current policy literature indicates that SOF is more important than ever - arguably comprising half of our national security needs - operators cannot be mass-produced. The reorganization of SOF in relation to the DoD is a mammoth topic all on its own. How does the United States expand this capacity then, given the current limitations? Reforming the bureaucratic foundations so crucial to the operational capacity of SOF would be a good start. To this end, there are two essential Gordian Knots to be untied: inadequate funding levels and a convoluted legal authorization structure. Adjustment of these constraints would represent a significant first step in giving America's finest warriors the backing they deserve, so that they may focus on their chosen profession: hunting the most dangerous enemies who threaten America’s prosperity and stability.

As an entry point of comparison between the high budgetary allocations of conventional forces to SOF, consider a well-known component of the US military's arsenal: “aircraft carriers do not defeat threats like ISIS, yet the United States launched another one in 2017, which cost $13 billion…ironically, this ship cost more than the entire budget of US Special Operations Forces, which are effective against ISIS…the opportunity costs are astounding.[2]” The takeaway here is not that the US doesn't need any aircraft carriers; the problem is with imbalanced proportionality of spending.

While the focus here is on SOF, the same inverted budgetary logic also applies to SOF’s close working partners, the CIA, as “DoD dwarfs CIA in terms of size and resources.[3]” These intermingled arms of policy conduct similar or at times identical activities, and this blend of kinetic and non-kinetic asymmetric action “requires robust funding and personnel levels that match policy goals.[4]” In short, the crucial levers of policy which conduct asymmetric warfare are underfunded and mismanaged.

In addition, the legal foundations under which SOF and its intelligence counterparts operate have become dangerously tangled and prone to manipulation. American legal doctrine governing SOF authorization and sanctioned use are less than a century old. However, there are several historical pivot points which are crucial in understanding the nature of the legal issues hampering efficient use of SOF.

The current legal impediments to optimum use of SOF and complementary espionage assets originate in the aftermath of WW2, when President Truman stripped postwar American clandestine capabilities from a nascent CIA which the OSS had utilized during the war. Several decades later President Kennedy took a significant catalyzing action following the Bay of Pigs incident when he signed several NSAMs (National Security Action Memorandum), most significantly number 57. NSAM 57 significantly increased the degree of apportionment of asymmetric and paramilitary capability from the CIA to the DoD.[5] This spurred the Pentagon leviathan into motion, simultaneously expanding and misusing SOF, while concurrent legislation in congress scrambled the legal coherency of how those shadow forces were to be utilized. This strategic mistake would be summed up decades later when General James Mattis said before Congress that “if you don't fund the State Department fully, then I need to buy more ammunition, ultimately.[6]” Kennedy’s actions were the equivalent of entrusting the training of a fencer to a brawler.

Both the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act and subsequent 1987 Nunn-Cohen Amendment - which attempted to address shortcomings in SOF utilization and organization - were both significant and ineffective, but these policy efforts deserve their own separate analysis elsewhere. While these legislative actions organizing security bureaucracy were important, they were arguably overshadowed by the obscuring of legal authorities regulating use of SOF and other clandestine assets. In short, not only were America’s critically important special operators mismanaged by the legislative branch and executive branches, but legally, the 90s and post 9-11 era added layers upon layers of labyrinthine legal code which gave the leviathan DoD heavy handed carte blanche in operations meant to be subtle and more akin to use of a scalpel than a broadsword.

Furthermore, Title 10 of the US code is meant to address conventional military activities, while Title 50 is for covert actions, typically undertaken by the CIA. But the intended separation of these critical turnkeys of national security have been obscured by legislative interweaving. Supposedly distinct authorizations of force became Penrose Stairs of legal strata, neutralizing their intended purposes of distinction of use of force. This conundrum is best summarized by the words of former director of the CIA Leon Panetta in 2009: “The line between covert actions under Title 50 and clandestine military operations under Title 10 has blurred [and Panetta expressed concern that] Title 10 operations, though practically identical to Title 50 operations, may not be subjected to the same oversight as covert actions, which must be briefed to the intelligence committees.[7]

There are numerous ways to approach the issues raised above, however, this analysis is contained only to identifying potential gaps in maximizing the utility of SOF and related espionage assets, a collective community of greatly increased importance in the current international security ecosystem. As former Army Special Forces Officer and writer Hy Rothstein suggests regarding the most essential fissures impeding the effective utilization of SOF, he emphasizes that “it has always been a military virtue to achieve maximum results with minimum effort. In military language, this virtue is commonly referred to as economy of force. SOF can wage war economically…but special operations are not cost free. Special operations, which by definition are small, almost always require the support of national assets. Furthermore, the scale of investment necessary to develop and maintain a capable special operations force is significant.[8]

Rothstein’s point regarding support from national assets should apply to Congress, the nation’s designated legislative arm. That branch of government, along with executive support, is the sole national actor capable of supplying the requisite monetary support and legal framework modifications. While seemingly obscure, bureaucratic efforts can inject resources and command authority to be applied by the professionals, who know where those resources are most needed. The importance of SOF and other related assets in today’s security environment, combined with the low cost, high efficiency, and relatively quiet international imprint strongly advocate for structural changes to be made which support the utilization of America’s most elite warriors.

[1] Rothstein, Hy. Afghanistan and The Troubled Future of Unconventional Warfare. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press. 2006. Pg. 155.

[2] McFate, Sean. The New Rules of War: How America Can Win - Against Russia, China, and Other Threats. New York: Harper Collins, 2019. 46.

[3] London, Douglas. The Recruiter: Spying and The Lost Art of American Intelligence. New York: Hatchette, 2021. Pg. 31.

[4] Devine, Jack. Good Hunting: An American Spymaster’s Story. New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 2014. Pg. 266.

[5] National Security Action Memorandum no. 57. June 28, 1961.

[6] McFate, 46.

[7] Wall, Andruw. Demystifying the Title 10-Title 50 Debate: Distinguishing Military Options, Intelligence Activities, and Covert Action. Harvard National Security Review. Volume 3, 2011. Pg. 139.

[8] Rothstein, 154.

DISCLAIMER: All views expressed are those of the writers and do not necessarily represent that of the IWAB platform.